10/07/2015 12:44 EDT | Updated 10/07/2016 05:12 EDT

How to Manage Challenging Guests at Thanksgiving Dinner

Michael Cogliantry via Getty Images
Family observing burnt turkey on dining room table

Canadians and Americans alike love Thanksgiving. It's a time to gather with family and friends and celebrate the harvest season. It's a time to reconnect with people we haven't seen in a while, to eat a delicious meal, relax and enjoy ourselves.

Unfortunately, in many families, there are one or two people who can ruin the experience for everyone else. Examples of badly-behaved relatives who might turn our happy holiday into a miserable experience include:

  • The alcoholic auntie who, once she gets going on the white wine, starts slurring insults at anyone who's near her;
  • The cousin with a chip on his shoulder, who can't resist picking a fight with anyone he thinks disagrees with him;
  • The creepy uncle who spends the whole time stalking the younger women in the family;
  • The sarcastic sister who needs to put everyone down with sly but unmistakable barbs;
  • The businessman brother who's constantly reminding people that he's more successful than they are;
  • The know-it-all in-law who does their best to make the person they're talking with feel stupid or uninformed;
  • The obnoxious father, who loudly monopolizes the conversation and won't let anyone get a word in, edgewise;
  • The racist grandfather who makes horrible, hateful jokes and comments, and
  • The passive-aggressive mother who makes everyone feel guilty about how hard she's worked to put the meal together.

Now, of course, there are many, many moms and dads, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents who are perfectly lovely, but when one or two of them happen to be badly behaved, it can really ruin our Thanksgiving celebrations.

So, what do we do about people like this? Here in Canada, we're so polite that often, when someone is behaving badly, we'll look the other way and pretend it's not happening. On the other hand, I've also been to American Thanksgiving celebrations where the bully or the boor had free rein to behave as badly as they wanted to. I completely understand the impulse, on both sides of the border, to avoid confrontation so as not to spoil it for everyone else, but isn't the badly-behaved person already spoiling things?

I recommend trying something that I call "soft boundaries." It's a way of demonstrating your objection to the person's bad behaviour, but without creating a fuss. When you use a soft boundary, you get your point across in a way that's polite, quiet and never disruptive.

Examples of how to use a soft boundary would be to gently remind your host to keep the wine away from auntie, steering clear of the aggressive cousin, and taking uncle aside and quietly but firmly stating that their behaviour is unacceptable and won't be tolerated.

You can put up soft boundaries by using mild jokes to deflect the barbs of your mean sister; humouring your boastful brother and saying, "Really, you don't say?" to the family know-it all. You can get up and move to another room, leaving loud-mouthed dad alone with hearing-impaired grannie; you can say, "Please, keep it friendly," when grandpa is about to tell one of his horrible jokes, and you can tell mom that you'd be happy to help, next year, if she's finding it too hard to manage dinner on her own.

There is a way to deal with the trouble-makers in the family, without getting into a noisy confrontation. However you do it, the point of the soft boundary is not to create a scene, but to let the trouble-maker know that their bad behaviour isn't OK with you, and that you're not going to sit by and be an enabler.

If you master the subtle art of the soft boundary, you can become the hero of the family; the one who saves this year's Thanksgiving dinner from becoming a real turkey.

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